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Creativity is a weapon. Watch where you point it.
There is a saying bandied about the new age, men’s self-help podcasts, and executive leadership retreats: “Where attention goes, energy flows.”
Put some real attention on romance or money or spirituality and watch it pile up. In my experience, there’s certainly some truth to this. The act of work—any work—often begets more work.
Wherever you put that attention, though, never put too much of it on yourself. Ask anyone in recovery. That begets nothing good. Self is one of the only words in the English language that’s an antonym of itself. It’s ego and its opposite. It’s a target too umbrageous to hit. It’s all crossfire in the dark without an NOD in sight. The attention must go elsewhere. Anywhere but self. But damn if it isn’t always finding its way back there.
In this regard, I’ve found that creativity is either my savior or my destroyer. If my creativity isn’t being used to make something, it’s being used to take something apart. And that something is invariably me. My creativity gives no f*cks. It’s an equal opportunity destroyer. It works weekends. And it’s taking you down with them (me).
If only I were a nihilist hacker. Or a sadist. Or a CEO. The target of my creative destruction could be anyone but me. Instead, left to its own devices, and without a project, my creative brain will use its ample power of persuasion to persuade me that I f*cking suck. If I am not focused on battling the blinking cursor, I’m the one who is going to get it. And I’m going to get it bad.
The work—this work—is my only hope. It’s this voice (the one you’re reading now) or that voice.
I can spend a few hours on this column or a few hours on vehement self-flagellation. For me, there is no limbo state. It’s one hell or the other.
Sometimes I wonder if the drinking ever really did silence that voice. Or did it just fill the proverbial ears with ethanol-soaked cotton balls? Too drunk. Didn’t follow.
My critical brain has been extensively (and expensively) trained. It’s been enabled by all the Descartes bullsh*t. Thinking over feeling. White collar over blue. Rational over mystical. Capital over everything. Who am I not to judge?
I distinctly remember the computer lab at the Saarinen-designed prep school I attended in an affluent suburb of Detroit—a glorified glassed-in hallway lined with Apple IIs. The future had a pretty small footprint at that time. And those computers weren’t just for hitting the Oregon Trail. They were for processing the words of your great American novel. In fifth grade. In the 80s and 90s, a school like that seemed far more interested in churning out poets and their publishers than engineers and computer scientists.
To be Fitzgerald or Bradbury or Steinbeck. That was it. Jobs? Ballmer? F*ck them. Who cares?
It’s pretty clear now how that went for us liberal artisans and our (formerly) monied backers. I needn’t look any further than that school I attended. It was founded and built by a newspaper man. The schools of the future will be built by the tech titans who killed the newspaper man off.
Later, when entering the workforce after four years at drinking camp, my Charmin liberal arts degree in hand, I figured out a way to get paid for my critical thinking, to be judgmental AF for a couple of bucks. First as an automotive journalist and later as a copywriter working in advertising. Of course, coming up with ideas is a big part of the job. But siphoning off the good ones and discarding the bad ones in real time, it’s that gift that gets you promoted to management. We’re not out here doing “adult coloring.” If you’re in a taste profession like advertising or fashion or film, it’s not really your job to just “make stuff.” It’s your job to be hypercritical of every f*cking detail.
But the critical thinking doesn’t stop when you punch out. It just keeps on going. With no guardrails in place, the kind of pixel-perfection applied to my work gets applied to me, by me. The analysis and skepticism and pressure-testing, like a black hole devouring galaxies. For a long time, I had no idea this was even going on. It’s no wonder I had to polish a bottle of Bordeaux every night after work. And that was on the tame nights. If you suffer from the creative thing and the alcoholism thing, watch out. I’m lucky to have escaped that conflagration before it was too late. But how many great ones have been torched by those twin flames?
What I’ve finally come to realize is: Some fires just can’t be put out. Ignore them and they burn out of control. Pour alcohol on them? Even worse. There will be casualties. The life of the creative in recovery is basically forest management. Get out there and set some controlled burns. Give them the right fuel. Feed the bottomless addiction pit some spirituality. Feed the creativity the work.
Beyond creativity, are there any other ways to contain the flames? Meditation, I guess. Once you get past listening to your mind make a case against your very right to exist, meditation is chill. But there’s nothing else quite like art, is there? Yes, creating is hard. It can feel like walking through life with your d*ck out. Some of the best people to ever do it despise it. But that didn’t stop them from doing it. And it’s better than self-immolation, anyway.
Words by Andrew Smart
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